Turnover is so great in some state facilities that the health and safety of vulnerable clients and the workers that care for them must be addressed, the Nebraska public employees union said Wednesday. 

Mike Marvin, executive director of the state employees union, sent a statement to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that said the biggest financial problem the state is facing is in the operation of its 24-hour facilities, such as the veterans homes, regional centers, youth treatment centers and prisons. 

State management inaction is jeopardizing those clients and workers, Marvin said. Paying a competitive wage and reducing excessive overtime could reduce high turnover and provide safe workplaces, he said.

Turnover has been highest among care technicians, child and family and social services trainees, corrections officers, and youth and mental health security specialists, ranging in past years from 35 percent for mental health security specialists to 94 percent for staff care technicians. The data is from 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Eighteen classes of workers have a 30 percent or higher turnover rate, and 37 classes have a higher than 20 percent turnover rate, including many in the Department of Health and Human Services, he said.

At the veterans homes, the turnover of direct care staff is so high that wages alone would not solve the problems, according to Marvin. A change of management is necessary, especially at the Grand Island and Norfolk facilities.

"They treat those people out there like they're indentured servants," he said. "They are a couple of dollars an hour behind what is prevalent for those kinds of jobs in their area."

At the youth residential treatment centers, turnover of security staff is in the 30 percent to 40 percent range.

In the next two-year budget, the governor has proposed adding 31 direct-care staff positions at the state’s two youth Developmental Centers in Kearney and Geneva.

"No other group of people better understand that the state is in a budget crunch than our members," he said. "That being said, we believe that there are some job classes that the turnover is so dramatic that, budget crisis or not, the wages needed to be addressed above and beyond what we negotiated."

The labor agreement that is currently undergoing a statewide ratification process calls for a 1 percent raise in calendar years 2017 and 2018, and a 1.5 percent raise in the six months of the fiscal year beginning in 2019, except for seven classes of employees in critical areas that will get 3 percent raises in 2019, rather than 1.5 percent.  

The union proposed 3.5 percent the first year and 2.5 percent the second year across the board, with the critical jobs receiving an additional 5 percent adjustment.

The union also asked for a longevity plan that would start in the fifth year and pay 1 percent to 1.7 percent each year depending on the number of years of service. In negotiations, it got a quarter percent bump every fifth year.

The state needs to worry about retaining the people it has at those facilities that are so understaffed, he said.

But Gov. Pete Ricketts appears to be rejecting that in his call for income and property tax cuts, Marvin said, both of which benefit the largest landowners and economically well off at the expense of essential public services. 

The state can't afford a tax cut, he said, but rather needs to put more money into retaining people.  

Jason Jackson, Ricketts' human resources officer, said state employees are fairly compensated in regard to the array of states to which Nebraska is compared. Special adjustments were made for workers in protective services, and management and operation of the state's 24-hour facilities, which Jackson agreed are some the most critical functions of government.  

Jackson said the state took a broad approach to salaries in the next budget, with a proposed investment of $54 million in new spending over two years on employee pay, including the raise, retirement contribution and health insurance.

"We believe that represents a pretty sizable investment," Jackson said. 

When workers are deciding whether to stay in their jobs, he said, they look not only at base pay but the total compensation. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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